If this is your first time to India, have no fear! 2014 marks my 8th trip to India so you will travel with a well-seasoned Indiaphile.
I had never been overseas before my first trip in 2005, alone, to study yoga, at the age of 50+. As soon as my foot hit Indian soil I knew I had come home, but your mileage may vary. Here is some of my advice and also that of others….
1. You will fly into and out of Trivandrum, Kerala (airport code TRV.) You need a passport (of course!) AND an India TOURIST visa. Find your local Indian consulate online — they have all the information on how to apply for a visa.
Visa processing in the United States has been outsourced. You apply online and send your passport to Travisa (or whichever visa company your consulate uses.) Americans can receive 5 and 10 year multiple entry tourist visas, the duration is 6 months for everyone else. Don’t worry about sending them your passport. Travisa’s services were excellent and they emailed me every step of the way. REMEMBER THAT YOUR VISA STARTS ON THE DAY IT IS ISSUED, NOT WHEN YOU ARRIVE IN INDIA!
2. CLOTHING: India is still a conservative country in many respects — tight or revealing clothing for women is usually not worn in big cities. I wear sleeveless kurtis (similar to a western tunic top) all the time with my salwars. In the photo above I am wearing a sleeveless top (actually a short dress) over baggy pants but my shoulders are covered by a dupatta (large scarf or shawl worn with salwar kameez) on the street.
However, with Varkala being a beach resort town, attitudes toward clothing are different. Bring baggy cotton pants, cargo pants, loose cotton tops, T shirts, a long skirt or dress, cotton shawls or scarves. Men wear long-ish shorts, cargo pants, drawstring pants, and T shirts or loose cotton shirts. There are many places to buy clothes in Varkala. India is hard on everything so I suggest that first timers go to a thrift store or resale shop, find some inexpensive clothes, then leave them in India. If you leave clothes behind you have more room in your suitcase for all that cool stuff you’re going to buy! DON’T bring a $100 outfit and have it ruined in the hotel laundry — it CAN happen.
YOGA CLOTHES: loose, comfortable clothes, not your Lululemons or tight fitting pants — you won’t be comfortable because the temperature will be over 90 degrees daily.
SHOES: you only need two pairs or even just one — comfortable walking shoes or sandals. I wear Keen flip flops everywhere and the trekking sandals that Keen, Teva, or Chaco sells are good choices. You want shoes that you can easily slip off and on when visiting temples, fumbling with straps is a drag. Comfort is key, you don’t want blisters in India!
There are many westerners in Varkala and it is a beach town where people are accustomed to seeing lots of Western skin. Ladies, bring a swim suit, but not your thong bikini. Many western women walk around in two piece suits and a sarong or a tunic top, long-ish shorts or capris, and skirts above the knee, but still show respect — NO SHORT SHORTS OR MINI MINIS! Use your best judgment, but always respect the culture because you WILL be going into town away from the beach.
You WILL be stared at no matter what you wear. It is just the way it is in India wherever you go. If you have tattoos, don’t be concerned. I have many tattoos and my experience is that Indians are very curious about them and appreciate them, especially the women. I am never worried about showing my tattoos in public, however, I always keep my shoulders respectfully covered in temples.
3. IMMUNIZATIONS: THIS IS YOUR CHOICE. No shots are REQUIRED, but some are RECOMMENDED like tetanus, polio booster, and hepatitis. Since I go for months at a time, I have had all recommended shots, but I know people who go with no shots. You can check with the CDC or WHO on what is recommended and YOU decide. Your regular doctor will most likely NOT give you the best advice on travel medicine — he or she will look at these same sites for information. Do your own research and decide what your comfort zone is.
4. MALARIA MEDICINE: Again, this is YOUR decision. Check on the above sites for the malaria map of India. I take Malarone because I am in India for months, however, I never finish it once I get home. You can also take the antibiotic doxycycline which is much cheaper. I have been bitten many times in 7 years of traveling. I know India travelers who NEVER take malaria medicine, but know that there are other diseases spread by mosquitoes in India. Bring bug repellant with you, however, I rarely use it.
I advise you to bring the antibiotic Cipro with you in case of any belly upsets — Cipro is the doctor recommended medicine for this. Going to India does NOT mean you will automatically get sick from eating the food. In 7 trips I got sick only once and it was NOT from Indian food, it was from a pastry filled with cream. Know that your digestion WILL change and it is very likely you will get “loose motions.” However, unless accompanied by severe pain or cramps, it is nothing to worry about. Taking a Pepto-Bismal tablet daily actually helps. You will drink bottled water in India.
5. MONEY: there are money changers at the airport so exchange some of your cash into rupees upon arrival. Forget travelers’ checks, I don’t know anyone who uses them. ATMs are plentiful in India, use your ATM card to withdraw money — BE SURE TO TELL YOUR BANK THAT YOU WILL BE IN INDIA because if you don’t and try to use your ATM card for the first time, it might be rejected. Same for credit cards — TELL YOUR CREDIT CARD COMPANY you will be in India or your card might be rejected the first time you use it. You can withdraw 10,000 rupees per day from an ATM which currently is approximately $180 USD.
I have only covered the basics so for more reading go to Indiamike.com – an India travel website with forums that have everything you want to know about India written by the travelers themselves. I suggest reading the Kerala forum. You do not have to register to read the site.
Sharell has a very informative site about India travel on About.com.
Visit the blog of another Indiaphile and yogini, Mariellen. She loves India as much as I do and has a ton of great information and other links.
Also check out my friend, Caroline, whom I first “met” on Indiamike and then actually met in 2006. She has lived in India for a long time and her rose-colored glasses fell off a long time ago as have mine. I especially like nos. 3, 9, 11, and 14, but I do not agree with her about tying your hair — mine is always loose and I have lots of hair! In 7 years I have never been hassled even though there is what is referred to as “eve-teasing.” I have traveled throughout Tamil Nadu by myself on buses and overnight trains, took the metro in Calcutta daily, was at the Kumbh Mela in 2010 with
thousands millions of people, and I have never felt unsafe in India. Ever. Maybe it is the way I carry myself or it is my Chicago street smarts that keep me aware and secure. Use the same common sense about your safety in India as you would at home.
As Caroline says, don’t go around namaste-ing everyone you meet. Interaction in India can be, shall we say, nuanced. I will be there to guide you and yes, I can decipher the Indian head wobble and teach you how to cross an Indian road. Cultivate patience, go with the flow, expect the unexpected, and try to leave your Western mindset at home — that will be the hardest thing to do!
Finally, read about my adventures in India since 2005 at Ma India, My India.
“Once you have felt the Indian dust, you will never be free of it.”